A poor knight’s household, from Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide, vv. 342-546


The following was originally published in Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. W. W. Comfort (London: Everyman’s Library, 1914). The extracts below have been taken verbatim from an electronic version of Comfort’s translation, prepared by Douglas B. Killings in November 1996. The electronic version was originally available online via OMACL (The Online Medieval and Classical Library), now archived at  https://web.archive.org/web/20120108222425/http://omacl.org:80/Erec/erec1.html (accessed 26 September 2018).  It is currently online at http://sacred-texts.com/neu/erec/erec.htm  (accessed 26 September 2018).


From Comfort’s Introduction:


Chretien de Troyes wrote in Champagne during the third quarter of the twelfth century. Of his life we know neither the beginning nor the end, but we know that between 1160 and 1172 he lived, perhaps as herald-at-arms (according to Gaston Paris, based on “Lancelot” 5591-94) at Troyes, where was the court of his patroness, the Countess Marie de Champagne. She was the daughter of Louis VII, and of that famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she is called in English histories, who, coming from the South of France in 1137, first to Paris and later to England, may have had some share in the introduction of those ideals of courtesy and woman service which were soon to become the cult of European society. The Countess Marie, possessing her royal mother’s tastes and gifts, made of her court a social experiment station, where these Provencal ideals of a perfect society were planted afresh in congenial soil. It appears from contemporary testimony that the authority of this celebrated feudal dame was weighty, and widely felt. The old city of Troyes, where she held her court, must be set down large in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chretien was led to write four romances which together form the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry. These romances, written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets, treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. 

[Endnotes 5-8 will be found at the end of the text.]

(Vv. 342-392.) Erec steadily follows the knight who was armed and the dwarf who had struck him until they come to a well placed town, strong and fine (5). They enter straight through the gate. Within the town there was great joy of knights and ladies, of whom there were many and fair. Some were feeding in the streets their sparrow-hawks and moulting falcons; others were giving an airing to their tercels, (6) their mewed birds, and young yellow hawks; others play at dice or other game of chance, some at chess, and some at backgammon. The grooms in front of the stables are rubbing down and currying the horses. The ladies are bedecking themselves in their boudoirs. As soon as they see the knight coming, whom they recognised with his dwarf and damsel, they go out three by three to meet him. The knight they all greet and salute, but they give no heed to Erec, for they did not know him. Erec follows close upon the knight through the town, until he saw him lodged. Then, very joyful, he passed on a little farther until he saw reclining upon some steps a vavasor (7) well on in years. He was a comely man, with white locks, debonair, pleasing, and frank. There he was seated all alone, seeming to be engaged in thought. Erec took him for an honest man who would at once give him lodging. When he turned through the gate into the yard, the vavasor ran to meet him, and saluted him before Erec had said a word. “Fair sir,” says he, “be welcome. If you will deign to lodge with me, here is my house all ready for you.” Erec replies: “Thank you! For no other purpose have I come; I need a lodging place this night.”

(Vv. 393-410.) Erec dismounts from his horse, which the host himself leads away by the bridle, and does great honour to his guest. The vavasor summons his wife and his beautiful daughter, who were busy in a work-room — doing I know not what. The lady came out with her daughter, who was dressed in a soft white under-robe with wide skirts hanging loose in folds. Over it she wore a white linen garment, which completed her attire. And this garment was so old that it was full of holes down the sides. Poor, indeed, was her garb without, but within her body was fair.

(Vv. 411-458.) The maid was charming, in sooth, for Nature had used all her skill in forming her. Nature herself had marvelled more than five hundred times how upon this one occasion she had succeeded in creating such a perfect thing. Never again could she so strive successfully to reproduce her pattern. Nature bears witness concerning her that never was so fair a creature seen in all the world. In truth I say that never did Iseut the Fair have such radiant golden tresses that she could be compared with this maiden. (8) The complexion of her forehead and face was clearer and more delicate than the lily. But with wondrous art her face with all its delicate pallor was suffused with a fresh crimson which Nature had bestowed upon her. Her eyes were so bright that they seemed like two stars. God never formed better nose, mouth, and eyes. What shall I say of her beauty? In sooth, she was made to be looked at; for in her one could have seen himself as in a mirror. So she came forth from the work- room: and when she saw the knight whom she had never seen before, she drew back a little, because she did not know him, and in her modesty she blushed. Erec, for his part, was amazed when he beheld such beauty in her, and the vavasor said to her: “Fair daughter dear, take this horse and lead him to the stable along with my own horses. See that he lack for nothing: take off his saddle and bridle, give him oats and hay, look after him and curry him, that he may be in good condition.”

(Vv. 459-546) The maiden takes the horse, unlaces his breast- strap, and takes off his bridle and saddle. Now the horse is in good hands, for she takes excellent care of him. She throws a halter over his head, rubs him down, curries him, and makes him comfortable. Then she ties him to the manger and puts plenty of fresh sweet hay and oats before him. Then she went back to her father, who said to her: “Fair daughter dear, take now this gentleman by the hand and show him all honour. Take him by the hand upstairs.” The maiden did not delay (for in her there was no lack of courtesy) and led him by the hand upstairs. The lady had gone before and prepared the house. She had laid embroidered cushions and spreads upon the couches, where they all three sat down Erec with his host beside him, and the maiden opposite. Before them, the fire burns brightly. The vavasor had only one man-servant, and no maid for chamber or kitchen work. This one man was busy in the kitchen preparing meat and birds for supper. A skilful cook was he, who knew how to prepare meal in boiling water and birds on the spit. When he had the meal prepared in accordance with the orders which had been given him, he brought them water for washing in two basins. The table was soon set, cloths, bread, and wine set out, and they sat down to supper. They had their fill of all they needed. When they had finished and when the table was cleared, Erec thus addressed his host, the master of the house: “Tell me, fair host.” he asked, “why your daughter, who is so passing fair and clever, is so poorly and unsuitably attired.” “Fair friend,” the vavasor replies, “many a man is harmed by poverty, and even so am I. I grieve to see her so poorly clad, and yet I cannot help it, for I have been so long involved in war that I have lost or mortgaged or sold all my land. (9) And yet she would be well enough dressed if I allowed her to accept everything that people wish to give her. The lord of this castle himself would have dressed her in becoming fashion and would have done her every manner of favour, for she is his niece and he is a count. And there is no nobleman in this region, however rich and powerful, who would not willingly have taken her to wife had I given my consent. But I am waiting yet for some better occasion, when God shall bestow still greater honour upon her, when fortune shall bring hither some king or count who shall lead her away, for there is under Heaven no king or count who would be ashamed of my daughter, who is so wondrous fair that her match cannot be found. Fair, indeed, she is; but yet greater far than her beauty, is her intelligence. God never created any one so discreet and of such open heart. When I have my daughter beside me, I don’t care a marble about all the rest of the world. She is my delight and my pastime, she is my joy and comfort, my wealth and my treasure, and I love nothing so much as her own precious self.”


ENDNOTES (from W. W.  Comfort’s edition):

(5)  The word “chastel” (from “castellum”) is usually to be translated as “town” or strong place within fortifications. Only where it plainly refers to a detached building will the word “castle” be used.

(6)  A “tercel” is a species of falcon, of which the male bird is one-third smaller than the female.

(7)  A “vavasor” (from “vassus vassallorum”) was a low order of vassal, but a freeman. The vavasors are spoken of with respect in the old French romances, as being of honourable character, though not of high birth.

(8)  The numerous references to the story of King Mark, Tristan, and Iseut in the extant poems of Chretien support his own statement, made at the outset of “Cliges”, that he himself composed a poem on the nephew and wife of the King of Cornwall. We have fragments of poems on Tristan by the Anglo-Norman poets Beroul and Thomas, who were contemporaries of Chretien. Foerster’s hypothesis that the lost “Tristan” of Chretien antedated “Erec” is doubtless correct. That the poet later treated of the love of Cliges and Fenice as a sort of literary atonement for the inevitable moral laxity of Tristan and Iseut has been held by some, and the theory is acceptable in view of the references to be met later in “Cliges”. For the contrary opinion of Gaston Paris see “Journal des Savants” (1902), p. 297 f.